Stephen PRESS

Jan-Erik Wikström on the trapeze and Francisco Bosch. Photo: Nigel Barklie

Sadler’s Wells, London,
Tuesday 8 April 2003

English National Ballet ‘Tour de Force’

Choreography: Christopher Hampson

Sarah McIlroy,
Jan-Erik Wikström,
Amy Hollins,
Francisco Bosch,
Joanne Clarke,
Laura Tong.

The Production

Prokofiev did not care for Romanov’s decision to leave the curtain down at the start of the Overture; he felt that this created a “dissonance” with his music, it ignored his rideau cue of a rising clarinet arpeggio at bar four. Hampson does not bring up the curtain until the slower middle section and so he too would have received the composer’s censure. But there is much to be gained by beginning the action where he does: the gorgeous clarinet solo accompanies our first glimpse of the trapeze holding the man and woman, who are clearly enamoured of each other. Of this Prokofiev surely would have approved: “In the middle of the Overture there must be a love scene, of real tenderness, out of which is born the drama at the end of the ballet.” [Prokofiev, in his last letter to Romanov]. But if this ballerina does not die a physical death as Romanov’s did, she will not, however, be the same person by the end of the ballet. During this middle section the man and woman perform an expressive duet on, to the sides of, and below the trapeze, their torsos dangling evocatively below the bar as the section closes. At the return of the musical A section, the two girls enter followed by the boy and girl, arm-in-arm. The two pairs sit and watch the trapeze artists with fascination. The man and woman dismount during the coda and take long glances at their audience before sitting down in the middle as the music ends.
     The A-B-A form “Matelote” movement has everyone dancing: in the first A section the two girls and the boy and girl take turns with ensembles at the end; in the B part the woman dances, performing a grand battement at each of the prominent five-note descending figures in the music. In the brief recapitulation of the A music everyone dances. Near the end the dancers move rapidly across the stage in a helter-skelter array of lines, foreshadowing, perhaps, the changing relationships to come.
     The next (third) number states a multi-part musical theme, followed by two variations and a reprise. The woman opens the movement with a solo on the trapeze. In the first variation the man and girl flirt with each other, including some teasing touches and quick embraces. But after a Grand Pause in the music, the girl suddenly realises that the man is serious in his intent and backs away quickly in bourrée as he strikes a suggestive, face-up, arched-back pose on the floor. The boy, also now aware of the dangerous situation, quickly stands. The second faster variation has the girl dancing for the man. The woman intercedes and the reprise has her dancing with the girl.
     The fourth movement was Hampson’s starting point. He finds this music to be quite powerful emotionally, with a distinctive voice. It holds a brief idea first stated by the solo double bass, six variations and a dramatic coda. The action on stage is similarly restless. At the start the two couples are together, but after some telling stares, duets and solos, the man comes between the boy and girl. During the hammering coda the closing pose is formed with the man curved over the back of the girl, the boy likewise behind the man and the woman off in the distance, all in arabesque. A blackout follows and everyone leaves the stage.
     Now comes a welcome distraction, some light entertainment that forms an intermission in the unfolding drama. The two girls, perhaps representing stylised clowns, perform some impressive rapid footwork on pointe and demi-pointe, with only a brief respite for some over-the-top port de bras in the second half. Once again a blackout follows.
     The expressive solo for the woman in the sixth movement has already been mentioned, but can now be appreciated as a dramatic response. The seventh movement is a lively duet for the man and boy. Their relationship is clearly defined during the dramatic coda as the man supports the boy on his thigh and lovingly caresses him. The ending pose has the man and boy standing front to back, legs bent, the man curved over the back of the boy, arm around his waist.
     By the final movement everything has become completely warped. The woman dances with the two girls, then alone. The man goes to the trapeze for a solo, as if to say “who needs you?” The woman and boy watch. By this time he is no longer interested in the girl. Near the end everyone dances and the woman mounts the trapeze once more. As the undulating bass line brings the music to a close, the man tries to mount the trapeze but the twice-jilted woman will have none of it – he has left her world. He dangles pathetically from her foot as the curtain lowers.
     All this, of course, is one man’s opinion; each viewer can make of it what they want. But Hampson’s new ballet with its novel concept, memorable, narcissistic, partner-swapping characters, and plethora of steps and moves, which demonstrate a close sensitivity to the composer’s music, is sure to have a long life. And it will undoubtedly develop along the way. The other good news is that Hampson hopes to create more ballets to Prokofiev’s music, specifically to the Fifth Piano Concerto. And one day he hopes to set Cinderella. As this goes to press, he is in New Zealand preparing his choreographic take on Romeo and Juliet.
     Seventy-seven years after it left the stage, Trapèze, Prokofiev’s second completed ballet, has been reborn. Kudos to Christopher Hampson and his wonderful dancers and support teams at the English National Ballet and Sadler’s Wells. They have lived up to Prokofievians’ high expectations. And, of course, a special bol’shoe spasibo – merci beaucoup to Noëlle Mann, for without her curiosity, dedication and hard work, this grand event would not have taken place.   

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